Ossipee — September 27, 2007 — Florence Aileen Curry Small is a name people in Ossipee ought to know and remember. The victim of a notorious murder in 1916, Small’s body lay in an unmarked grave in Grant Hill Cemetery in Center Ossipee for more than 90 years.
That has changed, due to the work of Natalie Peterson and other members of Ossipee Historical Society and the Ossipee community. They have bought and placed a stone to mark Small’s grave, and tomorrow, on the anniversary of her death, they plan to hold a graveside memorial service there, lighting 91 candles to mark each of the years that Small’s memory has lain in darkness.
For Peterson, the fact that Florence Small was never properly memorialized following her death at the hands of her husband was a final injustice marking the end of her tragic life. And it was one injustice that could still be corrected.
The Small murder was one of the biggest stories to come out of Ossipee in the first quarter of the 20th century. The story, as it unfolded, from apparent accident to an all too cleverly crafted murder by a man who managed to be more than 100 miles away when a fire destroyed his home, made regional and national news.
Frederick Small, who grew up in Portland before moving to Boston, had many jobs over the years as his fortunes rose and fell. As a young man he had hopes of becoming a professional baseball player, but that dream was cut short by an injury. After that, he worked in a grocery store and was later an insurance salesman and stockbroker.
When he met Florence Curry, who was to become his third wife, he had taken a job as handyman at a convalescent home she ran with her mother and sister in Southborough, Mass. Florence, a spinster of 32, decided to marry Frederick a little over a month later, and within a year, they left the family home to move to Ossipee. Coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally — no one will ever know), the family home in Southborough burned to ground the day after they moved.
The Smalls had lived in Ossipee for three years. They had moved to the town from Southborough, Mass., where Florence ran a convalescent home with her mother and sister. The only permanent residents of a summer colony on Ossipee Lake, Florence was isolated for much of the year, as she seldom went into Center Ossipee village.
“As far as I know she only got into town three or four times in that three-year period,” said Peterson, who has been researching and speaking on the Small murder.
At the time of her death, at the end of September, Florence was alone in the lakeside neighborhood. Her summer friends had gone home after Labor Day, and her family in Somerville found out about her death through newspaper reports.
Frederick and Florence Small had lived in a two-story cottage on the shores of Ossipee Lake. One morning at the end of summer, Sept. 28, 1916, Frederick Small went off to Boston on the train, taking the headmaster of a local private school with him, to do some business.
That night in Boston, Small received word that his house was burning and that his wife had not been seen. He hired a car and hurried home, arriving early the next morning to find the house a pile of rubble and ashes. His wife was believed lost in the fire, which had burned so hot and so quickly there was nothing local firemen could do to stop it.
But when what remained of Florence’s body was discovered, where it had fallen into a pool of water in the basement, it was discovered that she had been bludgeoned, shot and strangled, then apparently placed in a bed and the fire set around her.
There seemed little question that the fire had been deliberately set, since resin, kerosene and another accelerant were found at the scene, and the fire had been uniform rather than spreading from one point throughout the house. But it seemed impossible that Frederick Small could have been involved in the crime, until investigators discovered an alarm clock, spark plug, fire screen, clock spring and some hairpins.
Small was known to be a clever tinkerer who enjoyed mechanical projects. Later, investigators found a growing body of circumstantial evidence that indicated Small was also in a position to significantly benefit financially from the loss of his home and wife, and that he was known to have a temper and to have hit his wife and threatened her life in the past.
Small was arrested two days after the fire. He was tried and convicted three months later, and after waiting a year for appeals to move through the court system, he was hanged for the murder. To the end Frederick Small maintained his innocence, and his defense attorneys insisted that the evidence presented by the prosecution was entirely circumstantial.
Peterson became interested in the story through the historical society’s work to save the old Ossipee Court House as a museum of Ossipee and Carroll County history. While looking for stories that could bring the courthouse to life for visitors, Peterson learned of the Small case.
An older courthouse had burned and the new one was being built in 1916. “This was the first major trial in the new courthouse. It was one of New England’s most notorious ones,” she said. The story captivated local interest and flooded the town with reporters and others from the Boston area who came for the trial.
Among her resources was a book about the case written in 2000 by Janice S.C. Petrie, “Perfection to a Fault: A Small Murder in Ossipee, New Hampshire, 1916.” Petrie’s family once owned the land where the Small house had stood.
In the course of learning about the story, Peterson realized that the victim, Florence Small had been virtually forgotten and unmemorialized. When the trial was over, people went back to their quiet lives, and over the years the story was forgotten. Frederick Small had had what remained of his wife’s body after the fire buried in an unmarked grave on half a cemetery plot in the Grant Hill Cemetery in Center Ossipee.
“It bothered me that her grave was unmarked,” Peterson said. “There were no records in the historical society. The only flowers that had been there were from him.”
“It bothers me. She never did anything wrong. She never had a proper burial,” she said. “Until I got involved in this thing it was as though she didn’t exist. She slipped into oblivion without anybody caring. But I cared. I did something about it.”
Peterson combed through old cemetery records, eventually locating the grave. She said a series of coincidences has helped her to stay on track and not give up over the months the project has taken. “So many things have happened, people keep saying Florence is talking to me,” she said.
With the help and contributions of others, she collected money and purchased a gravestone that has been placed at the grave, in preparation for the service tomorrow. The graveside service will take place at 6:00 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28 in Grant Hill Cemetery, located on Main Street in Center Ossipee. The public is invited and encouraged to attend. Peterson said she is hoping to have enough people so that there will be someone to hold each of the 91 candles they intend to light in Florence’s memory.